We all need a safe space. In the ‘90s, mine was the 16-bit world of the Sega Genesis — where I would seek refuge from the racism of my small English town.
I was the only person of color at my school and was bullied relentlessly in the playground, classroom, and playing field. Because of this, I especially wanted to excel at contact sports, which I thought would win over my aggressors, but I found myself shunted into a remedial group by PE teachers who took one look at a British-Asian and assumed I was weak and cowardly. I wanted to be revered like my heroes, Pakistani fast-bowler Wasim Akram or Indian boxer Zoramthanga, but growing up in a white enclave meant I was never afforded the opportunities to shine that they had.
But, luckily, one video game series allowed me to fulfill my dream of being the fastest, strongest, and most valued athlete: John Madden. It was my first exposure to the NFL — football to me, up to this point, actually involved using your foot — but I soon became immersed in playbooks, touchdowns, and blitzes; so much so that I became a “football” fan when everyone else played (what Americans call) soccer. But, most of all, it was the first time I saw someone who looked more like myself on the screen. Bursting through a field of players, I finally realized my dream — leading me to break down in tears; it was hugely empowering to control a character that wasn’t white. And I have a man named Gordon Bellamy to thank for this life-changing experience.
I have a man named Gordon Bellamy to thank for this life-changing experience.
The former Electronic Arts executive was instrumental in making a key change to the series: making the default player color Black, not white, in Madden NFL '95. Additionally, Madden was also the first series to feature Black cover stars. A huge portion of video games, then and now, are based on fantasy and sci-fi worlds, where it was rare to encounter non-white characters who were powerful and not caricatured.
“Everyone knows how meaningful it can be to be the default,” he tells me. “And then be able to express positive traits of inclusion, and acceptance, and celebrate those things in others. It was simply a moment where African-Americans were default — most of the players in the NFL are — and it was meaningful for African-American game players because the question hadn’t been posed before of what was the default color for a football player.”
There’s two reasons why Bellamy had the tools for Black to become the default in Madden NFL '95. First, the technology had improved so that players could be different pixel colors. In the previous games, there was a limited color palette to ensure smooth gameplay. Secondly, he hired a truly diverse bunch of play testers, effectively opening EA up to Black people who hadn’t seen game development as a sustainable career choice.
“Have you ever seen Enter the Dragon or Bloodsport?” he asks. “These are movies where everyone brings their own style — and that is how you bring diversity and equity. Which is: you truly give everyone an open shot, without bias, to express themselves.”
There’s a quote shared regularly on social media from anti-racist researcher George Dei, which says: “Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space for everyone.” Inclusion, in this sense, is exactly what Bellamy achieved in the mid-90s.
“We did something that you would never do today,” he admits. “We put our emails in the [previous] Madden game manual, to democratize the process. So if you were truly hungry, if you wanted to make it happen, you could write directly to my desk.”
“We wanted to say ‘Hey, if you are really passionate about this, if you think you'd be additive to this team, let me know who you are. And let us know why. We wanted to give them an open book for expression,” he says. “When I joined EA in 1993 — now, there’s many axis of diversity but it wouldn’t [have been] diverse in the 2021 sense — it primarily drew upon people who were born or raised around Silicon Valley.”
“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space for everyone.”
That’s not to say previous EA dev teams weren’t all-white or the games weren’t played by African-Americans. In fact, one of Bellamy’s predecessors, Michael Knox, was another Black developer who worked on the first Genesis Madden game and left an indelible mark on the series. People who worked with Knox, who died in 2009, say he was first and foremost a fantasy geek who loved Dungeons and Dragons and Star Trek. But after the success of John Madden Football in 1990, he began inspiring other African-Americans through trade speeches. Richard Hilleman was lead designer on this game and he told me last year how important Knox was to the series.
“Suddenly,” he says, “people who were trying to figure out if they wanted to be in the industry could suddenly see somebody who looked like them. We always underestimate what I call that ‘Jackie Robinson moment,’ which is when can I see myself in there. Michael was a part of that moment.”
The work of Bellamy and Knox ensured that Madden was a “killer app” for the Genesis and became the go-to console for sports games. Another developer who worked on soccer and cricket games for the platform tells me that these Madden games were the benchmark for this genre in the proceeding years. But as the years progressed and the Madden franchise got bigger and bigger, was it still being aimed squarely at a diverse audience?
Current EA exec Rob Jones has designed Madden games since NFL '96, worked on the first N64 game in 1997, and introduced the franchise mode in Madden NFL ’99. This new development allowed gamers to manage a team, something that people of color struggled to do in real-life — as nearly all NFL franchises have white owners. It’s no surprise, then, to discover that Jones, who was hired by Bellamy and Mike Rubinelli, says that diversity was key to all the games he created.
“When I came in during the 90s, I felt that I was at the ground floor of a burgeoning industry,” says Jones. “I remember that my roommate Brian Jackson, who was also African-American like me, and I, were able to hire the candidates that we felt were most qualified for our teams and were able to hire a diverse crew of QA analysts.”
I mention to Jones that I found the latest John Madden game touching with its inclusion of the ‘taking the knee’ celebration and ability to be civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick. He agrees with me that seeing diversity in a game can shift people’s attitudes to race and help people suffering from being excluded. “Games can play a large role in reflecting societal change knowing they have an impact on a vast audience and have become so ingrained in today’s culture.”
Nowadays technology has changed so that all players are depicted as the color they are in real-life — and every Madden iteration is a HD mirror for the real-world NFL. EA, like many games companies now, are always keen to hire more people of color (54.6% of staff are white, 22.3% are Asian, 3.2% are Black), but does this mean the series is now no longer the great champion of diversity?
“We know that the more diverse our talent base is, the more diverse our games become,” says VP of EA Sports Daryl Holt. “And as game creators, we share a privilege and a responsibility to really break down barriers.”
“So we’re getting ready to move our Tiburon studio to downtown Orlando, to what’s called the ‘creative village’ and the surrounding communities there,” he says. “We’ve created a community action plan on how we can reach and interact with diverse talent to start to bring them into the fold.”
Holt sees diversity in gaming not just in terms of racial lines — and is keen for more women to become fans of the Madden series. “I loved seeing Dr. Jen Welter’s LinkedIn page say she was the first woman NFL head coach and Madden coach,” he adds. “She felt so proud about being in Madden and it’s great to see that type of cultural acceptance. Sports can uniquely bring teams and people together in so many different ways. And there’s certainly no shortage of women’s sports fans.”
“We know that the more diverse our talent base is, the more diverse our games become.”
The next hurdle, then, is to bring more LGBTQIA people into sports gaming. When I put this to EA, they claim that one way this can be helped is by adopting a zero tolerance policy to online abuse if it happens when Madden is played online.
Another perplexing modern issue is how to stop professional esports gaming from being a white dominated career, as it seemingly favors people from more comfortable backgrounds. The answer, according to Holt, is to have differing levels of competitive gaming so that someone relatively new to esports can take part in a Madden competition and work their way up to an elite level. It’s not a quick fix but, coupled with that zero tolerance policy towards online harassment, the conditions are there for all types of people to thrive in the esports arena.
The one success that all the game developers I speak to are proudest of, though, is recruitment. The legacy of EA’s diverse teams meant that the personnel went on to create other sports games, such as NFL Blitz and NBA 2K — infusing these games with features that appeal to all sorts of gamers.
“The biggest impact, ultimately, is that a generation of creators got to impact so many people playing the games for years and years and years and years and years,” says Bellamy.
Sometimes when you’re immersed in the culture of the games, it’s hard to spot a revolution. But without Madden, people like me would have had very few safe spaces in sports.